Thursday, September 21, 2017

THE VIRGIN TRIAL - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

Do you want to see a play in which the actors speak, make that yell, at the top of their lungs in a small theatre for much of the performance? And you can’t really tell who three of the seven characters are until near the end of the play?

You do? Well, the Stratford Festival has just the ticket for you. It is The Virgin Trial by Kate Hennig, a new play that the Festival commissioned and is now playing in the Studio Theatre.

The virgin of the title in Bess better known as Queen Elizabeth I of England who earned the moniker denoting complete abstention from sexual intercourse largely because she never married. The Bess we see in the play is Princess Elizabeth at age fourteen shortly after her father, King Henry VIII died and who lived with Katherine Parr, his last wife. Her uncle Ted was appointed Lord Protector of the Realm and Ted’s brother got the job of Lord High Admiral and he married Katherine Parr.
 
Members of the company in The Virgin Trial. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The identity of Bess, Ted, Thom and Mary are quickly discerned. But there are three other characters who are listed in the program as Eleanor, Parry and Ashley with no other information. Why is Stratford showing such lack of consideration for its audience? How hard would it be to tell us that Ted is Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector or that Thom is Thomas Seymour, the Lord High Admiral? Yes, they are the brothers of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother.

Who are Eleanor, Parry and Ashley? We first see Eleanor as a fierce, nasty woman serving water to Bess on a tray. When the unctuous Ted appears, she becomes the note taker for the questioning of Bess. Later we see her as a gleeful torturer. Near the end of the play we discover that she is responsible for the security of the realm. The play has a modern setting and historical accuracy is not an issue but telling us who the repugnant woman is from the start may have been a good idea.

Ashley and Parry mill around Bess and we guess that they have some position wherever she is living. But what? We should not have to guess and even if we did we may be wrong.

Henry VIII was succeeded by his nine year old son thus creating a power vacuum and certain nobles started jockeying for control. The play deals with Thom’s relations with Bess and his ill-fated attempt to probably abduct King Edward, perhaps become Lord Protector in place of his brother, marry Bess and eventually become king.
 
From left: Sara Farb as Mary, André Morin as Parry, Bahia Watson as Bess and 
Laura Condlln as Ashley in The Virgin Trial. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 
The play features enough plots, counterplots, machinations, intrigues, lies and torture to make your head spin but that’s part and parcel of struggles for power be it in the sixteenth or twenty-first century.

The teenage Bess played by Bahia Watson is smart, stupid, naïve sophisticated, truthful, mendacious, sexually active and, in the end, virginal. Hennig loads her with all these characteristics and because Bess was precocious but nevertheless young, all of them may well apply. Watson gives quite a performance except for the volume level that she spoke in.

Yanna McIntosh is powerful, conniving and brutal as Eleanor and if we knew her job from the start we would have enjoyed her performance even more. Appearing with a tray in her first appearance did not help. Think of Eleanor as a KGB or CIA interrogator when torture was (is) permitted.

Even creepier was Ted played by Nigel Bennett. He raises hypocrisy to new levels as he pretends to be the benign protector of Bess, ever solicitous of her safety. Then we see him as the conniving, power-hungry brute that he is. You don’t want him against you or around you.

Brad Hodder as Thom is an ambitious manipulator who wants power but lacks the cunning to get it and ends up in the tower. Andre Morin as Parry and Laura Condlin as Ashley are pawns in the chess game of power politics and end up getting tortured and worse.

Sara Farb plays Princess Mary, the future Bloody Queen who is ambivalent about supporting her sister while fearing for her life.

Much of the action takes place on an empty stage save for a table and a couple of chairs. The torture scenes are played behind a cloudy plastic curtain for reasons that escape me. The design is by Yannik Larivée.

Director Alan Dilworth seems to think that speaking loudly, really loudly, makes a scene more dramatic. In a small theatre, it makes it unnecessary and annoying. Two actors speaking at the same time or interrupting each other may be effective in certain situations. In this play it was not. 
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The Virgin Trial  by Kate Hennig continues in repertory until October 8, 2017 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Sunday, September 17, 2017

DANCING AT LUGHNASA – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival delivers a pitch-perfect production of Dancing at Lughnasa that captures the lyricism, poignancy, humour and beauty of Brian Friel’s memory play.

The play is about five sisters living on the outskirts of a village in County Donegal in Ireland in 1936. They are almost on the edge of civilization leading lives of poverty, hope, dreams and expectations all of it seen by us through the memory of Michael (Patrick Galligan), the son of one of the sisters. He looks back and narrates part of the story a couple of decades after the events. Like all memories, it is a mixture of nostalgia, ruefulness, sadness and lyrical cadences.
 
The cast of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by David Cooper.
The five sisters, played like a finely tuned musical quintet, are the schoolteacher Kate (Fiona Byrne), the housekeeper Maggie (Tara Rosling), the knitters Agnes (Claire Jullien) and Rose (Diana Donnelly), and Michael’s mother Christina (Sarena Parmar). They are different persons but, if I may continue the musical ensemble simile, combine to express the all-important atmosphere of the play. The essentially closed society that they inhabit provides a chance, however evanescent, to have some fun, to dance, to release some energy, to participate in something almost orgiastic and perhaps even Dionysian in the Lughnasa harvest festival.

Their only contact with the outside world while at home is a very unreliable radio but the sisters manage to start dancing, first haltingly and slowly joyfully, and then almost frenetically as they release all their inhibitions even for a few minutes.

Reality intrudes. Their brother Father Jack (Peter Millard), a missionary priest has returned from Africa not quite in a cloud of glory but under very suspicious circumstances. Michael’s father Gerry (Kristopher Bowman) makes an appearance. He is ne’er-do-well dance teacher, gramophone salesman and dreamer who claims to have seen a unicorn and is off to Spain to fight with the International Brigade. He is able to charm Christina into dancing with him and gives her some moments of bliss.
 (l to r): Sarena Parmar as Christina, Fiona Byrne as Kate, Diana Donnelly as Rose and 
Tara Rosling as Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by David Cooper.
Internal and external factors lead to the moving break-up of the world of the five sisters. The economy changes and Kate loses her teaching job, Rose and Agnes lose their home-knitting jobs because a factory has come in, Father Jack’s lunacy becomes more pronounced and in the end all that is left is Michael’s moving memory of events long past.

I write at length about the play because it captures the people and the atmosphere that I try to describe with such accuracy and emotional impact. The actors playing the five sisters, from the tough Kate to the simpleton Rose, to the drudging Maggie give expression to a vanishing world that the women try keep together but which unravels in front of their eyes.

Galligan as the adult Michael narrates the story wistfully and speaks his lines as a boy of seven.

Director Krista Jackson conducts the cast in a beautiful and sensitive rendition of Friel’s poetry.

Sue LePage’s set consists of a country village kitchen on the right, a prominently placed Marconi radio in the center with the rest of the stage being open space. With the lighting design of Louise Guinand, it is a perfect representation of what an adult may remember from his childhood and is thoroughly appropriate.

A night at the theatre not to be missed.   
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Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel runs in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Komagata Maru Incident is a punch in the face to Canada’s white supremacist past. It is a well-timed and fully deserved punch and we should all bow our heads in shame that such a racist incident was allowed to happen. Fortunately, things have changed in the past century.

In 1914 a Japanese ship carrying 376 Punjabis of whom 346 were Sikhs arrived in Vancouver Harbour. The passengers were British subjects and some of them had in fact fought in the British army and all were legally entitled to come to Canada. They were kept in the harbor for weeks and finally the ship was chased way by a warship.

Sharon Pollock has written a dramatic version of the incident that contains much factual information about the incident without being a documentary. It is a piece of theatre relying mostly on the imagination of Pollock.
 
Members of the company in The Komagata Maru Incident. 
Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
The play and the production deliver the punch of the ugly incident but there are issues with the play and Keira Loughran’s direction. The play is about Sikhs but there is not a single turban to be seen. There is a Sikh mother who is simply called Woman, (Kiran Ahluwlia) who speaks from the prow of the ship and sings some hauntingly beautiful and plaintive songs but never interacts with any of the other characters of the play. Some people may consider a play about Sikhs with only a token Sikh character a weakness and I would agree with them.

Much of the play takes place in a brothel run by Evy (Diana Tso) who has William Hopkinson (Omar Alex Khan), the immigration officer and chief villain of the play, as a regular client. Georg (Tyrone Savage) is a German friend, a tool of Hopkinson as well as a customer of the brothel, availing himself of the services of Sophie (Jasmine Chen).

There is a character called T.S., a man played by Quelemia Sparrow, who appears wearing a native costume which he, the character, takes off and puts on a top hat and a red coat and becomes a master of ceremonies of what could be a circus. We see him frequently and he comments on the action, expresses public opinion and addresses parliament.
Quelemia Sparrow as T.S. and Omar Alex Khan as William Hopkinson in The Komagata Maru Incident. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Sparrow is a marvelous actor who shows flair, energy and superb acting in the role. For some reason Loughran thinks that T.S. should never stand still. Sparrow dances almost all the time while speaking and the practice becomes unnecessary and annoying. A superb performance marred. The meaning in change from indigenous costume to circus master and back to indigenous at the end escaped me.

Loughran sees nothing wrong with two things happening at the same time on the stage. While Ahluwalia is singing, other characters carry on as if nothing is happening behind them. We want to hear both the song and the dialogue.

The Studio is a small theatre with the audience sitting on three sides of the auditorium. Loughran lets the actors stand right in front of the middle section of seats address them as if the other two sides don’t exist. They could just as easily stand near the back and be seen and heard by all sides of the audience.

Georg is a German who wants to be of service to Hopkinson and looks forward to business opportunities when World War I is declared. So much for giving Germans a bad a review but Savage could use a decent German accent. Khan is just as bad in that department. Interestingly, he is from a Yorkshire father who served in Pakistan and whose mother was brown and he ended up in Canada.    

Tso as Evy and Chen as Sophia are spunky, fearless, no-nonsense prostitutes and we are on their side.

Presenting the shameful Komagata Maru incident on stage does Stratford great credit and it is unfortunate that there are a few shortcomings in the play and in the production. But the necessary punch is delivered.
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The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock continues in repertory until September 24, 2017 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, September 11, 2017

TARTUFFE - REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival has scored the season’s grand slam with its production of Tartuffe at the Festival Theatre. Chris Abraham has directed a staging that crackles with energy, inventiveness, impeccable attention to detail and performances that are simply hilarious.

There is no doubt that the biggest credit for the success of production must go to Abraham. First he sets the pace and the tone. He sets a robust pace without making it frenetic as if it were a farce. He wants a lively tone and there is no character who delivers lines simply because they are in the text. Every line must and is delivered at full force, taking advantage of every nuance in the rhyming couplets.
 

 Members of the company in Tartuffe. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 

Rhyming couplets can drag the pace down sometimes and even sound artificial. There is no such dangers in this production. Ranjit Bolt’s translation is colloquial and highly spirited and the cast delivers its lines with vigour and aplomb. In the modern dress production Abraham does not hesitate to add some Trumpisms such as fake news and alternative facts. The play was no doubt chosen for production before Donald Trump was elected president but he proved a fine target for humour and ridicule.        
 Anusree Roy as Dorine in Tartuffe. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The cast was first rate but I will give high praise first to Anusree Roy who plays the maid Dorine. This petite lady becomes a spitfire in the role. She delivers her lines with category 5 force and vivacity but she also adds physical comedy that enhances everything she does. When Tartuffe suggests that she cover her breasts so they will not offend his delicate morality, she shakes them, contorts her body and produces hilarious comedy.

Graham Abbey plays the foolish Orgon, the dupe who falls for Tartuffe’s unctuous hypocrisy and gives him all his property and his daughter. We get a bravura performance by Abbey, again full of energy and marvelous touches of humour invented by Abraham.       
 
Maev Beaty as Elmire and Tom Rooney as Tartuffe in Tartuffe. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Maev Beaty as Orgon’s wife Elmire gets to display her considerable comic talents especially when Tartuffe tries to seduce her and she wants her husband to witness his friend’s depravity. Again Abraham does not allow any lines or physical action that can produce humour go to waste and neither does Beaty.

The lovers Mariane (Mercedes Morris) and Valere (Johnathan Sousa) have a spirited spat and she tries to stand up to her hopelessly deluded father, all with verve but no effect. Orgon’s son Damis (Emilio Vieira) does the same with same lack of success. Michael Blake is in an even tougher position as the reasonable Cleante. Fine performances by all.

Tom Rooney is a fine Tartuffe but I would have preferred him to be a little more sanctimonious. He was sporting some type of accent which he did badly and is unnecessary. Accents are not Rooney’s forte and he should skip them. Rod Beattie was wasted in the minor role of the bailiff.  

The set by Julie Fox consists of a modern living room with a bar and serves the production well. The opening scene is converted into a party out of which the censorious Mme Pernelle storms out. The scene is not particularly funny on paper but Abraham with Rosemary Dunsmore in the role makes it very amusing.

It is a production that is brilliantly directed, superbly acted and provides a great night at the theatre.
  ______
 Tartuffe by Moliere in a translation by Ranjit Bolt opened on August 17 and will continue in repertory until October 13, 2017 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Friday, September 8, 2017

DRACULA and WILDE TALES – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

Reviewed by James Karas

First, the good news.

Some years ago, the Shaw Festival introduced Lunchtime One Act productions and we have seen plays that are rarely produced and it was highly unlikey that we would ever get a chance to see them. It was and remains a great idea.

This year they have put on Wilde Tales, an adaptation by Kate Hennig of four fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. They have billed it as being for “Young and Old” and have gone a step further by organizing a one-hour pre-show workshop for children ages 6 to 12. They get to interact with actors and learn how the show is put together.
Marion Day as Catherine Wheel, Sanjay Talwar as Remarkable Rocket and Emily Lukasik as Squib in Wilde Tales. Photo by David Cooper
With or without the workshop, Wilde Tales is a delightful one-hour theatrical experience.  The dramatized tales are The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Selfish Giant. Hennig uses The Remarkable Rocket as a connecting link between the tales.

In The Remarkable Rocket, the characters are fireworks performing for the marriage celebrations of the Prince and the Princess. All the fireworks do well except for the supercilious Rocket (Sanjay Talwar) which expects to perform spectacularly but fizzes out every time. Very amusing.

In The Nightingale and the Rose, the singing bird (puppet handled by Emily Lukasik) gives a touching lesson in altruistic love and self-sacrifice in aid of a heart-broken Student (Jonathan Tan).   

The Happy Prince is about the friendship between a Swallow (Kelly Wong with puppet) and the statue of a bejeweled Prince (Marion Day).  The Swallow delays its migration to Egypt to help the poor by denuding the Prince of his rich jewels. When there is nothing left, it is too late for the bird to fly away and it dies. The Prince’s heart breaks and the statue is taken down. Lots of lessons there.

The Selfish Giant is about an ogre (Kelly Wong) who refuses to allow children to play in his beautiful garden. A Little Boy (Sanjay Talwar) melts his heart and all is well until the end when the giant finds the identity of the little boy is in reality. Marvelous.

The six actors take between three or five roles each, most of them requiring puppets, The lovely PJ Prudat, for example, plays Moon, Dragonfly and Belle. They all are charming, agile, amusing and poignant as the situation requires.

The best one-hour in the theatre.

Now for the … not so good news.

The Festival offers Dracula as one of the three productions in the Festival Theatre. It is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel by Liz Lochhead and my displeasure will be quite obvious. I should note my antipathy to adaptations of novels for the stage. No doubt, there are adaptations that make good literature into fine theatre but my proclivity against the practice remains.
 
Martin Happer as Dr. Seward, Marla McLean as Mina Westerman, Ben Sanders as Jonathan Harker and Steven Sutcliffe as Van Helsing in Dracula. Photo by Emily Coope
Dracula and Company is not just a novel or a character in fiction who likes a hefty supply of blood for sustenance, especially from pretty women. It is an industry that ranges from Count von Count on Sesame Street to Count Chocula to less serious manifestations in countless films and other formats.

Lochhead and director Eda Holmes take a heavy-handed attitude towards the novel-turned into play and the result is ponderous theatre with scant relief. When it is not ponderous, it is pretty difficult to take with a straight face. When Dracula (Allan Louis) visits the necks of Mina (Marla McLean) and Lucy (Cherisse Richards) for dinner, it seemed to throw the women into sexual ecstasy. Is that one reason for the difficulty of weaning them from him? These are straight-laced Victorian women for whom sex is a gender and nothing else but when Dracula goes for their necks….

Dracula’s neck bites have serious health consequences and only a super specialist like Dr. Van Helsing (Steven Sutcliffe) can diagnose and treat the illness. He brings all his artillery to England from Holland and he sets out to find and destroy the vampire.

I had some difficulty in keeping a straight face when part of his equipment consisted of a crucifix, some sanctified wafers and strings of dried garlic. We can assume that the Count is a good Christian under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church for the first two items to be effective or has an extremely sensitive nose for garlic to drive him away from his means of survival.

You can’t take away anything from Michael Gianfranco’s dark and eerie design. Very few pieces of furniture were required and hospital-type curtains were wheeled in and out efficiently for scene changes. Alan Brodie’s lighting supplements the effect of Gianfranco’s design.

Unfortunately, good production values were not enough to alleviate the tedious first half. The pace picked up during the second half but not enough to erase the effect of the first part.
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Dracula by Bram Stoker, adapted by Liz Lochhead continues in repertory until October 14, 2017 at the Festival Theatre. Wilde Tales by Oscar Wilde adapted by Kate Hennig continues until October 7, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, September 4, 2017

MIDDLETOWN – REVIEW OF ENO’S PLAY AT SHAW FESTIVAL

Reviewed by James Karas

Middletown, the title of Will Eno’s play offered by the Shaw Festival, gives the image of a piece about small-town America. It is a place of charm, innocence, sentimentality, pathos and humour. Yes, it can take many guises but in our imagination that is the most desirable model.

Middletown opens with a Prologue in which a Public Speaker (Peter Millard), dressed casually, welcomes all of us charmingly and somewhat garrulously to the performance. Is this going to be an updated version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town? Or are we talking about distancing us from the action, i.e. reminding us that we are watching a performance and not a representation of real life?
 
Gray Powell as John Dodge and Moya O’Connell as Mrs. Swanson in Middletown. Photo by David Cooper.
In the first scene we see a man and a woman sitting by windows on opposite sides of the street going about their business. We will soon find out that they are Mrs. Swanson (Moya O’Connell) and John Dodge (Gray Powell). The Cop (Benedict Campbell) approaches the Mechanic (Jeff Meadows) and speaks to him aggressively for no particularly good reason and puts him in a choke hold with his stick. The Cop apologizes to us and welcomes us to Middletown. The Mechanic addresses us directly as well. Some of the speeches to the audience are quite long and sound disjointed.

There is something wrong here.  The conduct and speeches of most of the characters contain incongruities or are quite incomprehensible. The situations that we see have underlying layers that are removed from linear logic.

Mrs. Swanson wants to become pregnant with a husband that we never see and who seems to be forever on business trips. She tries to make some sort of contact with Dodge, a local handyman who is between two jobs but is not sure what his second job will be. Their awkward attempts at friendship may be as far as they are capable of going. In the end Mrs. Swanson does become pregnant but John takes his own life.

The town has a charming if loopy librarian (Tara Rosling) who explains that a lot of people don’t bother getting library cards because they expect to die. The town is named Middletown because it is between two places but no one knows what two places.
 
Jeff Meadows as Mechanic in Middletown. Photo by David Cooper.
The play has twenty-four scenes and some of them are brief and dissonant. In one scene the Mechanic lurks around Mrs. Swanson’s window making sounds from nature. He frightens her but we don’t see her in the scene again. Mechanic tells us that he has taken up drinking again and gives us a chance to come up with a reason for it.

There are over twenty characters played by a dozen actors. O’Connell, Powell, Campbell, Rosling and Meadows play one role each while the rest of the cast take on between two and three roles each.

Meg Roe directs the cast and it coheres as an ensemble unit. Camellia Koo’s design is sparse as is necessary in a theatre-in-the-round.

Despite the folksy appearance and the apparently easy-going acting, Middletown is not Our Town. It is a complex play that tries to encompass a great deal. As a result, it is not always easy to follow and may need more than one viewing in order to capture more of its intricacies.
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Middletown  by Will Eno runs in repertory until September 10, 2017 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

AN OCTOROON – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Octoroon is a play by Dion Boucicault which was a hit in New York when it premiered in 1859. Chances are you have never heard of Boucicault or the play but it has earned the accolade of being one of the most popular America melodramas of the 19th century.

The melodrama is not exactly a highly admired genre. It is sensational, provides thrilling suspense, good and evil are clearly delineated, sudden turns in the plot and coincidences are frequent and characterization is minimal. The Octoroon fits the bill. On his return from France, George has inherited a Louisiana plantation that is on the verge of bankruptcy. The evil M’Closky has come to put everything on the auction block, including the slaves.
 
The cast of An Octoroon. Photo by David Cooper.
Dora the rich heiress wants George but he is in love with Zoe but we soon find out that he cannot marry her because she is an octoroon. One-eighth of her blood carries the curse of Cain, it poisons the rest of her blood, makes her unclean and the law forbids her to marry a white person. You know whereof I speak.

Well there are a few plot twists but George gets to keep the plantation, M’Closky has his comeuppance and Zoe and George, well, they do not live happily ever after.

A few years ago playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins decided to rework The Octoroon by adding some characters and updating it, but much of the original plot and characters of the play remains. He called his play An Octoroon, i.e. he simply replaced the definite article with the indefinite.

The play begins with a character named BJJ (Andre Sills) which happen to be the initials of the Jacobs-Jenkins. He appears naked except for underwear after we are exposed to some loud and unpleasant music and talks about being a black playwright and the plight of black artists in America.

Then the Playwright appears, also naked except for a pair of shorts. He is in fact Boucicault and the two men spend an inordinate time telling each other to f…off or the presumably euphemistic form, feck.       

Sills who is black plays the black playwright BJJ, then puts on white make up and becomes the good guy George, all in white, and then changes into the bad guy M’Closky, wearing all black. He later dresses half in white and half in black with half of his face blackened and half white representing M’Closky and George simultaneously or good and evil combined.

Patrick McManus plays the white Playwright, the Indian Chief Wahnotee with gobs of red makeup on his face and the auctioneer Lafouche, Ryan Cunningham handles three roles: Assistant, Pete and Paul. The slaves Dido, Minnie and Grace are played by Lisa Berry, Kiera Sangster and Starr Domingue respectively. Diana Donnelly plays the heiress Dora and Vanessa Sears is the octoroon.
 
Ryan Cunningham as Pete, André Sills as George and Starr Domingue as Grace in An Octoroon
Photo by David Cooper.
Jacobs-Jenkins want us to get a good idea of the content and texture of The Octaroon but at the same time he mocks it. BJJ and the Playwright appear and analyze the action and the structure of the play. We watch parts of The Octoroon but we are reminded that this is a production of An Octoroon. Some of the acting and speaking styles are exaggerated lest we forget what play we are watching. The salty language used did not allow you to stray away from the modern version for long.  

Director Peter Hinton elicited some fine performances from Sills and McManus who had to handle three roles each. I found Berry, Sangster and Domingue much more enjoyable. Donnelly as Dora was excellent and Sears as Zoe was superb.

I cannot say that I really enjoyed the production. I appreciated the trip to the 1859 play and the attempt by Jacobs-Jenkins to bring it to us mockingly, intelligently and in a very different format albeit with much fidelity to the original. In the end it struck me as being more of an academic exercise than a good night at the theatre.
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An Octoroon  by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins continues in repertory until October 14, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

ANDROCLES AND THE LION – REVIEW OF 2017 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival’s brochure gives us fair notice about what to expect from the production of Androcles and the Lion. The production “will be a daring theatre experiment: everyone in the room, actors, and audience, will have the chance to get involved.” 

Even “daring” and “experiment” do not quite prepare you for the extent of the interference, interpolations, violence and burlesque effects that are done to a play that Shaw wrote.

Before the house lights go down for the beginning of the performance, we see the cast on stage doing pushups, playing games and talking to members of the audience. All friendly and congenial.
The cast of Androcles and the Lion. Photo by David Cooper.
The performance begins with a Host (a very affable Shawn Wright) making some amusing remarks. He then tells us that plays used to begin with an overture at one time. Sure enough, we get the large cast marching on stage playing a variety of musical instruments and producing a cacophony that is very funny.

The host then reads from Shaw’s extensive stage directions, adlibbing and engaging the audience. The lion of the play is chosen from the audience and the dialogue of the Prologue  as written by Shaw begins between the hapless Androcles (Patrick Galligan) and his obnoxious wife Megaera (Jenny L. Wright). But not for long. As Megaera complains that Androcles is selfish, never thinks of her and the like, he turns to the audience and asks “Have you ever heard that?” It gets a laugh.

The Prologue as done by Galligan and Wright is very funny with or without the interpolations and other shenanigans and the lion from the audience is highly entertaining. But the interference with the text is what Director Tim Carroll has chosen as the way he wants this production and that style continues for the rest of the performance.

But there is more. Cast members are asked to tell us what they are thinking, about incidents or stories from their lives. They do and they do it well. The stories they tell are interesting, humorous (is the timer on my oven working so that when I go home the ribs will be ready?) and informative when they read excerpts from Shaw’s lengthy Preface to the play explaining the political thrust of the piece.

Does it work?

That depends on your attitude. If you are happy with the text of the play being used like a crutch for burlesque and the creation of laughter with little reference to what the author wrote, you will enjoy this production. In the performance that I saw, most of the audience did. But if you believe that the text should be respected and serious deviations, innumerable interpolations and brutalization of the play should be reserved for, say, Monty Python then you will not be thrilled by Tim Carroll’s approach.
Jeff Irving as Ferrovius, Jay Turvey as Editor of the Gladiators and Jenny L. Wright as Menagerie Keeper.
Photo by David Cooper
The performances by the cast were excellent and they would have done justice to the play with less interference to the text by the director. Galligan is touching and funny as the Greek tailor who pulls the thorn out of the lion’s paw. Neil Barclay is hilarious as the king-size Emperor. Julia Course is a very attractive Lavinia, a devout Christian who is also a fine woman. Jeff Irving as Ferrovius is also a devout and powerful Christian who has anger management problems and is hilarious within and outside the text of the play.

Shawn Wright plays the Centurion, an ineffective martinet who gets more laughs than obedience. The ensemble with their makeshift costumes and energetic movements sometimes give the flavor of a high school production where nothing goes as planned.  That is the danger of too much interference with the text even if you get the laughs.

The parameters for infidelity to the text and the freedom that a director can take in the interpretation of a play are broad but they are not unlimited. Carroll went well beyond any limitation and showed no respect for the text. He sacrificed loyalty for the sake of laughter.   

A comment made by Richard Bentley, a classicist, about Alexander Pope’s translation is a propos: "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." Nor is Tim Carroll’s production of Androcles and the Lion a play by Bernard Shaw.
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Androcles and the Lion by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE BREATHING HOLE - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

By James Karas

The Stratford Festival has decided to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Canadian nation by commissioning a play that covers our history, in the words of the 2017 brochure, from “First Contact to a future ravaged by climate change.” That is very ambitious and in the words of Alfred P. Doolittle, it is “the right and proper thing to do.”

The play is The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy and it has been given a relatively short run by the Stratford Festival (July 30 to September 22, 2017) in the small Studio Theatre. It covers some 500 years from 1534 to 2034 of history with the dominant feature being a couple of polar bears, Angu'juaq (Bruce Hunter) and Panik (Jani Lauzon).

The polar bears are very well designed large puppets reminiscent of the performances of War Horse doing some very convincing bear-like movements. One of the bears is saved while a cub by Huumittuq (Jani Lauzon), an elderly Inuit woman who raises him as her son.
  Bruce Hunter (left) as Angu'juaq and Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The bears are smarter, better mannered, more humane, generous and sympathetic than some of the people. And they are able to understand Inuktitut. Despite contact with British explorers, they do not acquire any knowledge of English. Therein lies a problem. No, not in the bear’s failure to understand English but in their ability to comprehend Inuktitut and to act almost like human beings. It is one thing for the Inuit to worship the spirit of the polar bear, but it is quite another for the polar bear to stop mauling a man because it is asked to.

If The Breathing Hole is about the creation of Canada, there is almost nothing about its history as a colony that evolved as a nation. It starts with a group of Inuit in 1534 when the bear is saved by Huumittuq when some of the original inhabitants of what was to become Canada were happy, hungry, struggling, arguing and dancing to 1550 when the bear is grown up and things are changing.

From there we move to 1845 and meet members of the disastrous Franklin expedition. Randy Hughson plays the ineffectual, almost buffoonish Sir John Franklin leading a crew of ridiculous men. They speak with horrible accents and are totally unconvincing or annoying. The lowlight is an attempt at crude humour by the Inuit and the British bragging about the dimension of their genitals. Some of the dialogue is not only inept it is endlessly irritating.

From the scene in 1847 when we see the remnants of the Franklin expedition near its demise we jump to 2028 when the pristine Arctic of the previous scenes becomes a place for ecotourism. The ice has melted, there is drilling for oil and the Inuit and the non-natives are collaborating in the exploitation of land and people for money.

The final scene takes place on a cruise ship on New Year’s Eve where people are dressed and acting stupidly but there is a very dramatic if improbable final tableau.

Director Reneltta Arluk seems to prefer overacting to subtle performances and the actors fulfilled her instructions by jumping, screaming and being ridiculous or annoying in far too many instances. There was no consistency in the casting of the Inuit characters and the result was rather bizarre. Ujarneq Fleischer played the hunter Avinngaq. He is from Greenland and he had considerable difficulty with enunciating his lines. Lauzon was very affecting as the outsider in the Inuit community.
 
Members of the company in The Breathing Hole. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 
The set by Daniela Massellis emphasized the stark whiteness of the ice and snow of the north and was quite effective.

There is no doubt that an immense amount of work has gone into the creation and production of The Breathing Hole. In addition to the usual artistic crew, there were Inuit dramaturgy and Cultural consultation, Inuktitut consultation and translation (the play is partly bilingual), Inuit props, costume and makeup consultants and a significant number of artists who participated in the development of the play. Not to mention that no fewer than eight doctors were consulted.

Unfortunately effort does not equal result. Murphy has tackled a grand theme at the right time. A part of the Inuit story is brought on stage including an indigenous director and a number of indigenous actors. All of it highly laudable. Unfortunately, the final result falls short of expectation.
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The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy continues in repertory until September 22, 2017 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, August 26, 2017

THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT – REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Near the end of the first act of The Madwoman of Chaillot, a character called The ragman tells us that the world has been invaded by evil people. The world and people are no longer beautiful and everything is run by pimps, the butcher, the grocer, the garage man, all are controlled by pimps. The moral degradation of the world is complete.

Jean Giraudoux wrote his allegorical drama during World War II and he tried to illustrate the condition of France in a play with more than fifty characters covering the gamut of the social ladder. At one extreme are the capitalists, ruthless, exploitive, wealthy, greedy and evil. At the other end are the workers, the street people and the entertainers - the victims of the capitalists. . In the middle we have four ladies, the madwomen, who appear a bit looney but who have the drive and imagination to stand up to the capitalists. Will they be able to save civilization as we know it?
 

 Members of the company in The Madwoman of Chaillot. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 

Donna Feore directs the very large cast in the theatre-in-the-round Tom Patterson with considerable effectiveness albeit a bit sluggishly in the first act.

In the first act, The President (Ben Carlson), The Baron (David Collins), The Prospector (Wayne Best) and The Broker (Rylan Wilkie) plan to create a corporation, take people’s money, manipulate the stock market and make untold amounts of money. As they make their plans in an outdoor café in the Chaillot area of Paris, they are accosted by a large number of “ordinary” people including a singer (Mike Nadajewsky), a policeman (Tim Campbell), a shoelace peddler (Qasim Khan) and others. The capitalists treat everyone with contempt.

An imposing lady named Comtesse Aurélie, The Madwoman of Chaillot, appears and she shows neither fear nor respect for the crude capitalists.

The problem with the first act is the large number of people who come on and off the stage. It is difficult to maintain the pace and focus until near the end when The Ragman appears and he dominates the last part of the act. Here Scott Wentworth gives a fine performance as he describes the moral swamp that the world has become. He has another superb scene in the second act when he “defends” the immorality that has befallen the world.         
 
From left: David Collins as The Baron, Wayne Best as The Prospector, Ben Carlson as The President and 
Rylan Wilkie as The Broker in The Madwoman of Chaillot. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The second act is more tightly constructed as the capitalists get their comeuppance. The play has four madwomen and there is a marvelous scene as we get to know the somewhat looney ladies who are somewhat detached from reality but have not left it by any means. Seana McKenna plays the main role and gives her usually superb performance. Her Madwoman has some loose screws but she knows precisely what she wants to achieve and that is to save civilization. She achieves a combination of flightiness, and purpose that is quite a thrill to watch.
Constance, The Madwoman of Passy (Kim Horseman) imagines she has a dog with her. She veers between out and out delusional and pleasantly enjoying the illusion of having a dog without losing complete touch with reality.   Yanna McIntosh is tough and assertive as The Madwoman of Concorde but she is in the same zone that is between suffering from delusion and enjoying an illusion. As is the virgin Gabrielle, The Madwoman of Saint-Sulpice played by Marion Adler.

The set by Teresa Przybylski consists of tables and chairs indicative of an outdoor café for the first act and a grab-bag of furniture for the basement room of the second act. Quite fine especially within the limitations of the theatre-in-the-round.

In addition to the outstanding McKenna, Feore has assembled some of Stratford’s finest for the production. Ben Carlson as the President and his capitalist cronies make a frightful quartet of money grubbers that Giraudoux holds up to ridicule and contempt.

If I were forced to give the production an overall grade I would give it a B.
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The Madwoman of Chaillot by Jean Giraudoux continues in repertory until September 24, 2017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, 111 Lakeside Drive Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

BAKKHAI - REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival is once again visiting Ancient Greek drama with a stunning production of Bakkhai by Euripides at the Tom Patterson Theatre. It uses Anne Carson’s translation and adaptation and she prefers to transliterate the title of the great play her way instead of the more traditional Bacchae.

No doubt you are keeping track of the Festival’s production of Greek drama and recall that the Bacchae was produced there in 1993 in a redoubtable staging by David William with Colm Feore, Ted Dykstra and Barbara Bryne. Otherwise the Festival seems to go into allergic reaction at the thought of producing classical drama but there are exceptions and that is another issue.
 
From left: Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus, Laura Condlln as a member of the Bakkhai, Mac Fyfe as Dionysos 
and Brad Hodder as Guard in Bakkhai. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Jillian Keiley directs the current production with intelligence, knowledge and an intuitive feel for Greek drama. She makes brilliant use of the Chorus and has some marvellous staging effects to give us an outstanding Bakkhai.

From the little that we know or can infer from Ancient Greek tragedy, the productions were more operatic than straight plays. The productions had music and the Chorus sang or chanted some of the poetry written for it especially the choral odes. How do you handle the issue today? If the leader of the Chorus speaks the lines, then the poetry allotted to the Chorus become prosaic. If they all speak together, it may be difficult to understand them or, worse, they sound ridiculous.

Keiley has found a splendid compromise. The Chorus (the Bacchae or devotees of Dionysos a.k.a. Bacchus) speak, sing, chant and dance to music composed by Veda Hille. Hille’s music plays a key role in the success of the production. In its lyricism and punctuated sections, it fits the poetry and the mood of the play. The choral odes are no longer impediments to the action but become integrated into the drama. A major achievement.

The Bakkhai is about the arrival of a new religion in Thebes which Pentheus, its king, and the women of the city reject. Dionysos whose mother Semele was a Theban and Zeus was his father comes disguised as a mortal to wreak revenge on the people of his native city. Mac Fyfe’s Dionysos is petulant, arrogant, effeminate, vengeful and with has a huge chip on his shoulder.

The youthful Pentheus, his cousin, rejects the new religion. Wearing a suit, Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus is arrogant, puritanical, ill-tempered, violent and a law-and-order ruler. He has a lot in common with Dionysos even though they are on opposite sides of the religious issue. Dionysos has the upper hand, of course, because he is a god and he will wreak unbelievable vengeance on the Thebans. 
Members of company in Bakkhai. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Graham Abbey plays the seer Teiresias and Nigel Bennett plays Kadmos, the father of Pentheus. They represent their characters as old codgers with a bit of humour if that can be said to exist in the play. Lucy Peacock plays the role of Agave, Pentheus’s mother and what she does defies the imagination. You may not know the plot of the play and I will not spoil it for you.

Keiley uses Anne Carson’s adaptation. It is poetic and colloquial. Some of the modernisms may go too far (“he’s a shrewd manager of data.” “Call a cab.” Dionysos describes himself as a daimon and explains that “there is no word for it in English.”) The cast handled the language with ease and the performances from the Herdsam of E.B. Smith to the main characters were stellar.

The set by Shawn Kerwin consists of a raised platform in the centre of the Tom Patterson stage. There is extensive and highly effective use of lighting by Cimmeron Meyer and sound by Don Ellis.

Bakkhai was written by Euripides in 405 B.C. near the end of his life while he was living in exile in Macedonia. It is a complex play that has kept scholars and philosophers busy for more than twenty four centuries. Better still, it has kept theatre lovers fascinated since its premiere in Athens in the early hours of the morning in March 405 B.C. at a theatre and a festival named after Dionysos. It won first prize.  
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Bakkhai by Euripides in a version by Anne Carson continues until September 23, 2017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, August 12, 2017

PORGY AND BESS – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival has programmed and assigned directorial duties to herself of Porgy and Bess, perhaps one of the most important American operas. She has pulled out all the stops to stage the signature production of the season and has scored a resounding success.

It is a Negro spiritual, a folk opera and original musical combination that deals with life in the lower depths, with race, poverty, murder, drugs and love being ever present. It has an outstanding score by George Gershwin to a libretto by his brother Ira Gershwin, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. All of them are white. 
                                                                                                                                                                    The opera is set in Catfish Row in Charleston , South Carolina where the only whites that we see are contemptuous figures in authority The opera opens in what looks like a two-story tenement house designed by Peter J. Davison with people looking from the second floor and others playing craps in
the open space below.                                                                                                                                                                    The opera, with its large cast, has its main characters but it is very much an ensemble work with particular emphasis on the orchestra. There is no attempt to sugar-coat anything and the visceral impact is overwhelming.
 
Talise Trevigne as Bess and Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Porgy is a crippled beggar who drags himself across the stage supported by a crutch. His physical deformity is counterbalanced by his essential humanity and decency. South African bass Musa Ngqungwana sings with a resonance and emotional depth that surpasses the cruelty and evil that surrounds him. His love for Bess is unconditional and immeasurable right to the last chord of the opera when he manages to strike a note of faith, even optimism in a milieu that offers none. When he sings the moving “I Got Plenty of Nothin” his voice and emotion resonate through the theatre. A stupendous performance.

Bess (Talise Trevigne) is the classic victim of her station in life, her sex, her possessive lover Crown, her drug dealer Sportin’ Life and her physical attractiveness. In her own way, she is just as crippled as Porgy.   

There is no shortage of cruelty in the slum of Catfish Row. Crown is a lanky, musclebound thug. He runs away after killing someone and on his return claims Bess who has fallen in love for Porgy. She resists but he brutalizes her mercilessly. Norman Garrett plays the frightful Crown and gives a scary portrayal of the self-absorbed brute.
 Norman Garrett as Crown. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Sportin’ Life is the local drug dealer and he offers a better life to Bess presumably because he has money. He gives her drugs but she rejects his offer to go to New York. She is rejected by everyone as she knocks on their doors except for Porgy, the beggar, the cripple and another “reject.” Listen to the lyricism and passion of Porgy and Bess’s duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and you have been repaid for the price of admission many times over.  

Talise Trevigne’s Bess is attractive, compassionate, tortured and in the end selfish in her betrayal of Porgy for the drug dealer. In other words, she is human. Trevigne has a marvelously strong and dramatic voice and she displays a tremendous emotional range in her performance.

The opera has more than twenty singing roles and no faint-hearted director need apply for the job. But Zambello has directed the opera before and her panache shows. There are outstanding soloists but even more so superb ensemble singing.  
                                                                       
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus under John DeMain perform superbly.

Opera at its best.
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 Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward will be performed thirteen times between July 7 and August 21, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org